The World Health Organisation (WHO) says the Omicron COVID variant has now been detected in 57 countries.
Omicron — labelled a “variant of concern” — was detected by South African authorities and subsequently reported to the WHO.
There are reports that the variant had been earlier detected in the Netherlands before the announcement by South Africa.
Following the discovery of the new variant, there have been concerns about its possible higher transmissibility due to the increase in COVID cases experienced in South Africa.
Speaking on Wednesday during a virtual media briefing, Tedros Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, said certain features of Omicron, including its global spread and large number of mutations, suggest it could have a major impact on the course of the pandemic.
“Exactly what that impact will be is still difficult to know,” he said.
“We are now starting to see a consistent picture of rapid increase in transmission, although for now, the exact rate of increase relative to other variants remains difficult to quantify. In South Africa, the number of Omicron cases is increasing quickly. However, Omicron was detected when transmission of Delta was very low, so it had little competition.
“It will, therefore, be important to monitor carefully what happens around the world, to understand whether Omicron can outcompete Delta.”
The WHO director-general called on countries to review their national plans, accelerate vaccine coverage for at-risk populations, intensify efforts to drive transmission down, and scale up surveillance, testing and sequencing.
He also asked that countries avoid “ineffective and discriminatory travel bans”.
“I’m pleased that France and Switzerland have lifted their travel bans on southern African countries, and I urge other countries to follow their lead. To France and Switzerland, merci beaucoup,” he said.
“All individuals can reduce their risk by keeping a safe distance from others, avoiding crowds, wearing a mask, cleaning your hands, and meeting outside if possible, or in a well-ventilated space indoors.
“And please, get vaccinated if you can. We can save lives from Delta right now; We can prevent Omicron becoming a global crisis right now. And we can prevent other variants emerging right now. This virus is changing, but our collective resolve must not.”